As I write this, in mid-March, I am sitting not in my office in Day Hall, but in my home here in Ithaca. Instead of meeting with faculty, staff and students in person, I am using chat, email and videoconferencing. Instead of looking out my window at McGraw Tower as the chimes ring out, I am watching a gentle rain fall on the trees in my backyard – the peace of the moment strangely at odds with its intensity.
Cornell’s campus, normally full of life and learning, has fallen quiet. For the moment, all instruction, and most research, have been suspended. Nearly all of our faculty and many of our staff are now working remotely; with few exceptions, our students have left campus for home, where they will complete the semester online.
This is not the way any of us envisioned the semester ending when it began, or even just a few weeks ago. Yet as each of us adjusts to our new shared reality, I am forcefully reminded of something I have seen over and over again in my time at Cornell: that our community is far larger than our physical campus. Cornell is not a place, a time or even a period in our lives. It is a community, it is an ethos and it is what unites us – now more than ever before.
These are not ordinary times for any of us. We are reeling, struggling to adapt with all the grace we can muster to a situation that just a few weeks ago was unimaginable. And across our community, we are overwhelmingly choosing to respond with resourcefulness, kindness and determination. Graduate students have rallied to help undergraduates, offering rides, storage space and even spare rooms and couches. The Student Assembly, Graduate and Professional Students Assembly, and many other campus organizations have redirected funds earmarked for now-canceled activities to Cornell’s Access Fund, which is providing grants to students struggling with the expenses of an unexpected transition. Our Division of Student and Campus Life has assisted many hundreds of students with unique and complex situations: those who cannot afford to return home, those who have no home to go to, those who are unable to travel because of government restrictions. The logistics of residence hall move-out – a mammoth operation that is usually meticulously planned and carefully orchestrated over many months – were put into place with lightning speed, including options for students to store items until their return. In the space of two weeks, our teaching faculty, aided by our remarkable Center for Teaching Innovation, moved to adapt their classes to online teaching – reaching out to support students in their transitions while negotiating their own. Our campus may be empty, but our teaching, our learning and – most importantly – our community carry on.
I am so inexpressibly proud of everyone – students, staff, faculty, families – making all of that possible, despite their own anxieties, their own disappointments and the disruption to their own lives. I am particularly proud of and inspired by our faculty at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City who are working tirelessly on the front lines of this crisis, and equally proud of the many alumni who are doing the same. And I am so grateful to all of you who are rising to this unprecedented challenge with courage, creativity and compassion.
As our alumni know so well, we do not stop being Cornellians the moment we leave campus. Our identity, our community and our Cornell ethos are stronger than that. Until we are together again, wherever there is a single Cornellian learning, growing and creating – that is where Cornell will be.
My very best to all of you.
Martha E. Pollack